Former headteacher Bob Jelley remembers a time when ‘school trips’ were a lot more straightforward
It sometimes seems that prospective headteachers should be tested for courage. It’s what you need when the coaches leave the playground off on an expedition and malevolent whispers of doubt drift into your mind. One coach driver used his phone to send text messages as he drove last week. His firm were horrified when the school rang in, from a land phone, to complain. My wife remembers (with diminishing horror after 25 years) how some children in her charge were shown around the ash collection system at the back of a crematorium, by a (no doubt) well-meaning member of the parks department. My wife and I share the local legend (urban myth) of the middle school group which returned from Twycross Zoo with a small penguin in a duffle bag! Books could be written, after-dinner speeches filled with such tales. We could probably all recount personal indignities handed out by perverse, uncaring Mr Providence. The child who arrived at the outdoor centre and was carefully instructed by centre staff and my colleagues and I about behaviour and in particular, ‘don’t run on that wall there’, and who did run on that wall there 30 seconds later, jumping for and missing the dangling rope. Result? Broken arm. I hope and expect, that solicitors from my local authority left the boy’s solicitors and family in no doubt as to the sense of outrage felt by my colleagues and I when it was suggested that we were in some way neglectful. It led, about a year later, to the only occasion when I refused to sign a passport application, moodily telling the mother concerned how affronted the staff had been; ‘Oh I wasn’t saying you were neglectful, there was nothing personal,’ she said. I dragged my better self from out of my vengeful mood and said, ‘Well it felt personal.’ If we ever felt like cancelling future trips because of this incident, well, it didn’t last for long. We are of course more conscious nowadays of the perils that threaten us and other school parties past and present. We insist on centre staff with appropriate credentials, we group our pupils carefully and shepherd them in the hills, near to the streams and on the beaches with past tragedies in our minds. The responsibility sometimes hangs overhead like a thunder storm. Yet to follow the good, well-meant advice that our unions might have given, to retreat from organising the trips, to protect ourselves from litigation culture at the expense of children on trips, well, that carries dangers too. It results in a dilution of education. While our libraries and the internet can give us a taste of the world outside our village, while teaching can focus on any aspect of the world and our imaginations can cause us to wonder and to dream of other worlds, still it is exhilarating to stand in your first rockpool among waving anemones and scuttling crabs; or take in the smell of a barn and its newborn bovine lodgers; or climb a hill; or dam a stream; or follow that nocturnal rope line through sacks and tunnels. Every sense is engaged. Our doubts and fears are challenged by the abundance of all that nature offers. These are the days when many parents fear what the park and the street outside hold for children. TV in the front room is a regular, inferior substitute which neglects physical and sensory first-hand experience. We have to try to provide children with these experiences in classrooms and through the whole range of one-day and residential trips. Child obesity and sensory ignorance are likely champions through default if we withdraw from organising trips.
Last month I took part in a sleepover along with 75 Year 6 children and staff. The kitchen staff turned out to provide evening fish and chips and breakfast toast. Torrential downpours flooded parts of the school and curtailed the planned outdoor activities but inside excited children skipped, danced and sang. We sat outside the temporary dormitories (Year 6 classrooms with furniture pushed aside) and waited for the excitement, noise and whispers to subside. One teaching assistant sat up all night aware and catering for the needs of a sick youngster. The headteacher nailed a night on a camp bed to the end of a busy week. Teachers perhaps slept and dreamt more easily knowing that their end-of-year reports had been completed. It would be possible to list the dangers bearing down on this storm-tossed night and list reasons for staff not to be involved but the excitement of pupils and the pride of many of them at having just slept away from home and family for the first time, seemed to me to confirm that all the professionals involved were attending to the needs of the whole child, as someone once called them.